Debunking the peak oil apocalypse

Civilization collapses. Billions die. Film at 11.

Published March 3, 2006 8:35PM (EST)

We're doomed. We cannot possibly replace the energy currently supplied by oil, and oil's days are numbered. Civilization is poised for imminent collapse, and billions will inevitably die. That, in a nutshell, is the line of thinking espoused by a particularly gloomy subset of those who are worried about peak oil -- that moment when worldwide production of oil hits its maximum.

Yesterday, a reader of How the World Works took issue with my downplaying of the catastrophe-around-the-corner theory, and challenged me to address the apocalyptic arguments in an unpublished draft of a paper by Jay Hanson.

Jay Hanson could be called the father of the "billions-are-going-to-die-because-of-peak-oil" meme. He created the Web site and his name is a regular presence in online discussions of peak oil. So let's take a look at a critical passage from his essay.

"Every day," writes Hanson, "people burn the fossil fuel equivalent of all the plant matter that grows on land and in the oceans over the course of a whole year. No so-called 'renewable' energy system has the potential to generate more than a tiny fraction of the power now being generated by fossil fuels!

"In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter 'containing 44 x 10^18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet's current biota.' In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries' worth of plants and animals!

"The inevitable decline of global oil production means that the energy available to global society will inevitably fall too; it means the consumer civilization is now over."

The clear argument espoused here is that it is impossible to replace the fossil fuel-based energy we currently consume with alternative, renewable sources. But there are a couple of holes in Hanson's logic.

Let's start with Dukes' paper, which has received a great deal of attention since its initial publication, and rightly so. But it has also, Dukes told me this morning, often been "misinterpreted" in the blogosphere.

For one thing, the four centuries' worth of plant and animal matter that became the coal, gas and oil consumed in 1997 represent an extremely clumsy, not to mention slow, method of converting biomass to energy. Although the debate rages on about just how net energy efficient biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel are, there is little doubt that current production methods are considerably more efficient than the millions-of-years process by which, say, peat swamps get converted into coal. Dukes' own paper notes that to replace the fossil fuel energy consumed in 1997 with biofuels would consume 22 percent of the biomass produced on earth in that year.

Now, that's obviously a big, awful number. Converting 22 percent of the earth's production of biota into fuel would have catastrophic consequences for biodiversity and food supply. Still, there's a difference between that number and the idea that we need four centuries' worth of production to make up for each year of consumption.

But it's also a number that's kind of beside the point. As Dukes says, it doesn't include solar or wind or hydroelectric or geothermal power. Nor does it include attempts to cut back on energy consumption, which will be essential for grappling with the oncoming crisis.

As for the assertion that renewable energy will never generate a fraction of the energy produced by burning fossil fuels, well -- as Alex Farrell, an assistant professor at U.C. Berkeley's Energy and Resources Groups notes, global solar energy input to the earth, in a given year, is 5,000 times as great as the amount of energy humans consume in a year. There's some room to maneuver there.

It's not going to be easy, and there may well be depressions and recessions and wars and other calamities to face along the way, but it is also not by definition impossible.

"The urgent thing is to bring all these things online as quickly as possible, and do it in a way that is environmentally sustainable," says Dukes. "We've got a huge challenge. The question is, how are we going to face it? You've got to take that attitude, you can't just say forget it."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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